Misty Adoniou is a regular columnist for The Conversation in Australia. She is an odd choice for this role because she is more of a campaigner than an impartial communicator of academic findings. And she was in full campaign mode this week as she railed against the proposed phonics check for Year 1 students.
Let me be clear; I am in favour of introducing this check. It has been 12 years since the publication of the results from Australia’s national inquiry into the teaching of reading and the recommendation that teachers use systematic and explicit teaching of phonics. Yet it’s hard to see the impact of this on the ground. One hint as to what is happening can be gleaned from the various advice documents that schools produce for parents. These tend to caution against the ‘sounding out’ of words and instead recommend strategies such as guessing words from context or from pictures. These approaches are associated with whole language teaching rather than phonics – Ken Goodman’s ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game‘ – and have been singled out for criticism by a U.K. review of the evidence.
Another worrying piece of evidence comes from one recent study which suggested Australian teachers lack knowledge of the key concepts required for systematic phonics instruction. If this is the case then they have been badly let down by the schools of education that should be teaching this stuff.
However, it is hard to tell exactly what is going on in the classroom. Year 3 NAPLAN reading comprehension tests are too far removed from initial reading instruction and conflate phonics knowledge with vocabulary and general knowledge. That’s why we need a check. Such a check has been in place in England since 2011 and this is where Misty Adoniou’s article enters the picture.
What would a general reader, unacquainted with the research, make of the following statement?
“…so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.”
You might assume that reading comprehension scores have been flat. But that would be incorrect. According to a 2015 review, there have been improvements in the key test of reading comprehension that takes place at the end of Year 2 during this time. These improvements began prior to the introduction of the check. However, there was a general awareness that the check was on its way and the review notes that some schools involved in the pilot had already started to change their phonics instruction. Can anyone prove that the improvements are due to the check? No. Is it highly suggestive? I think so.
Adoniou also seems to be a fan of ‘analytic’ phonics. This is a whole-to-part approach where phonics knowledge is taught through the analysis of words rather than discretely as in the ‘synthetic’ approach. The phonics check aligns better with synthetic phonics. Adoniou claims:
“There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.”
Here is a quote from the Australian inquiry that she is referring to:
“Notwithstanding these assertions, findings from the seven-year study undertaken by Johnston and Watson (2005a,b) clearly indicate the superior efficacy of synthetic phonics instruction and are worthy of mention here…
Three training programs were conducted with 300 children for 16 weeks, beginning soon after entry to the first year of formal schooling. For 20 minutes per day, children were taught either: (a) by a synthetic phonics program, or (b) by an analytic phonics program, or (c) by an analytic phonics plus phonological-awareness training program.
At the end of these programs, the synthetic phonics taught group were: (a) reading words around seven months ahead of the other two groups, (b) were reading around seven months ahead for their chronological age, (c) were spelling around eight to nine months ahead of the other groups, and (d) were again performing in spelling around seven months ahead of chronological age. The synthetic phonics taught group also read irregular words better than the other groups, and was the only group that could read unfamiliar words by analogy.
So Adoniou must have missed that bit. She also seems to have missed the words at the end of the 2017 U.K. phonics check such as ‘model’ and ‘chapter’ because she thinks it, “only tests single syllable words”.
There is a serious debate to be had about this issue. I think a phonics check would help but it is no panacea. I am particularly concerned about the possibility that we hang too much on phonics and neglect the development of children’s general knowledge; the latter being critical for later reading comprehension. Note that England has a far meatier national curriculum in place than our watery and degraded effort.
However, we need to have this debate in an informed way. Misleading arguments don’t help.